Much has been made about Bengals rookie safety Jessie Bates’ ball skills.
“Versatile safety option with the athletic ability to handle man coverage responsibilities in space and the instincts and ball skills to post ball production in zone coverage,” reads his NFL.com draft profile.
“A ball-hawking safety with impressive coverage skills,” says another draft profile.
“He also plays well in the passing game, showing solid ball skills, tracking the ball and making a play,” writes another draft analyst.
But when you look at the numbers, Bates went from having five interceptions in 2016 to just one in 2017. Those numbers have stirred up questions from some Bengals fans who are cautiously optimistic that Bates can bring much-needed turnovers to a Bengals defense that ranked second to last in the NFL in turnovers in 2017.
We spoke to Bates’ college coach to get his opinion on what changed from 2016 to 2017.
“We asked him to do a lot of man-to-man over the slot, which is something that’s very hard to do,” said Wake Forest safeties coach Lyle Hemphill. “That really took his eyes off the quarterback a lot of times and I think that had a fair amount to do with why he didn’t have as many interceptions.”
Another part of the equation was the opposition taking notice of Bates’ strengths and not throwing the ball in his direction.
“He also wasn’t targeted nearly as much,” Hemphill said. “A couple people tried him early in the year and then they’d go away from him. He has great range, great hands, he was a centerfielder so he can track the ball really well. That’s going to be one of his strong points, even if it wasn’t this past year.”
Another interesting detail shared by Hemphill was his realization of how much Bates simply loves the game of football. Enough so, that the coach believes Bates’ love of the game contributed to him leaving college early and declaring for the NFL draft.
“In my meeting room, there’s a big window between my office and meeting room and during the season at 10 or 10:30 p.m., I would be walking out and the light would be on and he’d be in there,” Hemphill said. “And it wasn’t once every two weeks, it was every single night.
“He was in there, that’s what he did. That was his routine. He really enjoys that part of it, studying people. The opponent, the offense, the quarterback. I think that’s why he was in a hurry to get out of here, to go do it full-time.”
That should be music to Bengals fans’ ears. It’s one thing to be a naturally-gifted football player and another to love the game so much that you can’t get out of the meeting room.
“He’s just a football kid,” Hemphill said. “I don’t think he really does much else. Football, football, football. That’s all he does.”
As good as he was in college — impressive enough to be selected in the second round of this year’s draft — Hemphill believes Bates has the potential to continue growing and improving at the NFL level.
“He’s really cerebral. He gets the moving pieces and all that kind of stuff,” Hemphill said. “And the other thing the Bengals are getting is a kid with huge upside. I think he has a lot of room to grow. All the things he does physically, I think he can get a lot better at, but mentally, he has to be one of the sharpest kids who came out this year.”